This week I was asked to provide an answer to a question posed by an influential Washington-based publication regarding the future of tourism in the Caribbean in the wake of the damage wreaked, in quick succession, by two Category 5 hurricanes.
The question was disturbing. Its inference was that tourism in the Caribbean could be fatally affected by the recent storms and by more frequent and intense storms in the future, and, further, tourists would now have to consider alternative destinations.
I did not regard the question as idle speculation and I pondered whose interests would be served by spreading the notion that tourism to the Caribbean has become dangerous.
I provided an answer to the question for the publication. I reproduce below both the question and the answer that I gave.
The question was: “How have recent events (the massive earthquake that toppled buildings and killed many in Mexico City) affected the outlook for tourism in Mexico and elsewhere in the region? How badly damaged is the Caribbean basin’s tourism infrastructure, and how long will it take to recover? Will some countries of the region, spared from damage be able to accommodate more visitors, or will trends see tourists choose entirely different parts of the world to vacation altogether?”
The answer I gave was as follows: “I am unable to speak for Mexico in this matter, but I would imagine that both the Mexican government and the private sector will act swiftly to correct any impression that the earthquake prohibits the country from welcoming tourists. Tourism to Mexico is not to Mexico City alone.
With regard to the Caribbean, while the tourism infrastructure in some countries in the Caribbean has been damaged by the recent hurricanes, this is not true of the entire area. Many destinations for both air and sea arrivals are open and functioning normally.
The countries that were not impacted by the hurricanes recognise that there will be greater demand and they have taken measures to accommodate this development, such as earlier opening of resorts that had closed for the summer.
Some of them, such as Antigua and Barbuda, have already entered agreements with airlines, cruise ship liners and yachting companies for more calls at their ports. Several cruise ship lines, such as Royal Caribbean and MSC cruises have organised their schedules to allow their clients to proceed seamlessly with Caribbean cruises by increasing the number of their berthings at non-affected ports.
Both Caribbean countries and the airlines and cruise ship companies have a vested interest in preserving and promoting the Caribbean. They are already adjusting their marketing campaigns to reflect that reality.
Tourists have the entire world from which to choose for their holidays, but the Caribbean has a special appeal whose lustre has not been lost because of the damage caused to a few destinations. The damage is not permanent and the Caribbean has a record of swift recovery”.
It is important to note that while territories, such as the British and US Virgin Islands, Anguilla, French/Dutch St Martin/St Maarten, Puerto Rico and Dominica, were damaged as well as the small island of Barbuda (the other island of the State of Antigua and Barbuda), other Caribbean destinations weathered the storm and are operating normally. These include the Bahamas, Jamaica, St Kitts-Nevis, Antigua, St Lucia, Grenada, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Barbados and Tobago.
The unimpeded operations of these countries and the readiness of their ports and resorts to welcome visitors are messages that their tourism authorities should be broadcasting in the tourist markets loudly and clearly.
In tourism competition, as in all forms of competition, underhand propaganda that hurts contestants is par for the course. The undermining by challengers of contenders for the same prize is subtle, but widespread.
The international media coverage of the awful damage done by hurricanes Irma and Maria help unconscionable contestants to try to grab as much business from the Caribbean as possible. In their quest to increase their market share and to benefit at the Caribbean’s expense, few would be privately troubled.
Of course, the region wants the international community to recognise the enormous damage that has been done to the gravely affected islands and their peoples. Rebuilding in these countries will require an international response in many ways. But, at the same time, the region must also let the world know that damage to some islands has not closed the area, and the damage is not permanent or irreparable.
Tourism now accounts for at least sixty percent of the Gross Domestic Product of the Caribbean. Retaining the region’s share of world tourism is vital to economic growth and development and the well-being of the Caribbean people.
We must tell the world that the affected countries – especially those that are not dependencies of the US, Britain, France and the Netherlands – need international help. But, we must also let the world know that the Caribbean is resilient and determined, and remains a little bit of paradise on a planet troubled by terrorism, conflicts and disease.
After Hurricanes Irma and Maria ripped through parts of the Caribbean, following basically the same path, there were whispered suggestions that life on these islands was becoming unsustainable, and it might be prudent to abandon them. That fatalistic notion must never be an option for Caribbean societies. Caribbean civilisation must not be made extinct – not even partly.
Recognising the increased frequency and intensity of hurricanes, Caribbean countries must rebuild damaged infrastructure and property – and construct new ones – at much more resilient standards.
Modern day building materials make the achievement of such standards possible.
The region may be bowed, but it does not have to be beaten.
(Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the OAS. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are his own)